Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Red Badge of Courage

Oregon Children's Theatre
Posted by Frenchglen May 12, 2007; closes May 20, 2007

The real thing. Outstanding ensemble of Andres Alcala, Jono Eiland, Chase Fulton and John San Nicolas brings adaptation of Crane’s Civil War classic to powerful, painful life. Not a wasted moment in 65 minute tour of internal and external battlefields. Recitation of war wounded names hits hard. Scorching. Relevant. Compelling.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many things work about this show. It is performed and designed well. I enjoyed the ride. However, the adaptation, or perhaps the production of the adaptation, seems to me a bit lacking.

Both the staging and the script imply that the conflicts and themes are "timeless" or "universal" or "updated." However, the entirety of the cast is male--and that has certainly not been the case of the military constituency for several decades. Furthermore, multiple references in the text link "becoming a man" to fighting and aggression and "weakness" with women.

Is this really how far we've come? Shouldn't a current and truly controversial updating of this classic to our times address both the changes in our military and the outmoded and overplayed tropes of man as fighter-protector and woman as gentle homemaker?

And what a great opportunity is lost for giving young female audience members role models to inspire them and connect them to the story by short-sightedly casting an all-male cast. And if, perhaps, that casting choice was purposeful to showcase the ways different male personas engage and perpetuate systems of violent one-upmanship to feel adult/legitimized, then it was considerably underplayed in this production.


All in all the show is driving and interesting--but (in this audience member's eyes) not nearly so interesting as it seems to think it is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous above, this story is not universal. War and the discussion about war have evolved considerably since the 1860's, but the creators chose to costume and set their play in a modern conflict suggesting that the two are the same.

I was also frustrated with this show because the story's debate about war is too limited for our time. The story leaves no room for imagining a world without war. The only options presented for individuals are either hero or coward within a world at war.

This approach extended to the talkback where audience members were given only two ways to respond to a statement by the moderator: stand up if you agree and sit down if you disagree. We do society as a whole and children in particular a disservice when we impose black and white dichotomies on complex issues. How about real discussion about the issues this play raises for our time? Rather, audience members were encouraged to respond in sound bites and any disagreement or discussion was squelched.

Anonymous said...

It's the goddamn Civil War! Jesus! And an adaptation of an established literary classic! Jesus freaking Christ!

[repeatedly bangs head again desk until a small bloody pool forms]

*sigh*

Sorry, but I think you'll have to take this up with Stephen Crane, and, as I understand it, he's been booked for some time. No, no, wait...I'm receiving a transmission from the ether:

(Suddenly all characters freeze. Golden light up on a single female character. With a parasol.)

My. Y'all men sure are violent. I think there's somethin' mighty wrong with y'all. Now have one of you considered expandin' your consciousness? Perhaps gettin' in touch with your feelins? That lovin' warm side y'all men so often repress while you're doin' stuff like, I don't know, haulin' round cannonballs? If y'all like to sit and take a spell, we have a darlin' little tent set up right down the hill, and we'll be servin' hush puppies and fresh sun tea, so just tiptoe on down when y'all get done with your fussin'.

(Light fades. Pause. Fighting resumes. Blood, death, etc. Limbs fly into audience.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:22-
I think the reason people are challenging this play is that it is being sold as "timeless" or "universal" or "updated." and if you then want to hide behind it being a "classic" then that is what it should be. The nature of a "classic" tale is rooted in its outdated details. This lets you the audience fill in your experience and current events to make the story relevant to you. The story becomes a vessel that you pour life into. Hip Hop sound track not included.
The earlier post is correct in calling the producers on their lack of inclusion of women in the updated play. Just ask Ken Burns and PBS.

Frogger said...

Are you seriously proposing changing the story of "Red Badge of Courage" to include women as combatants in the Civil War?

That may be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen posted around here.

Anonymous said...

I meant to suggest only that if the adaptation (which is already distanced from the original in the use of contemporary music --i.e. hip hop--and in the condensation of characters into 3 central roles) and the production (which utilizes uniforms from many time periods and a set reminiscent of highly tagged and postered urban cement walls) are already so distant from Crane's original, then why not take this adaptation all the way? The script and the production tend towards INDICATION that the content is absolutely contemporary, yet it does not LIVE that proposal fully. Rather, it points at the proposal from a distance.

Anonymous said...

Frogger:

"Are you seriously proposing changing the story of "Red Badge of Courage" to include women as combatants in the Civil War?

That may be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen posted around here."

Do I understand then that you believe fusing a hip hop track to the fictionalized battle of Chancellorsville somehow escapes ridicule?

Anonymous said...

Would it be better if it was the story of Henrietta Fleming?

Frogger said...

There is a huge difference between stylistic choices and flat out changing history.

Anonymous said...

First off, I haven't seen the show. I've only read about it. However, it sounds like the adaptors decided to put it in a contemporary context to connect it to the current war, but that they also chose to more or less hew to Crane's story while making it workable for the stage.

Keeping in mind this is childrens' theatre, I would think one of the goals would be not only to help kids grasp war as a real experience but also to interest them sufficiently in "The Red Badge of Courage" that they might want to read the book. If they do so, they're likely in for a different experience than the producers present here, but they're also not going to puzzled as to why female characters portrayed in the play are absent in the book.

It's also worth noting that "Badge" largely portrays the experience of foot soldiers, and that, even though the contemporary military has expanded roles for women and that women are in harm's way just as men are, particularly in a fluid combat arena as Iraq, they are still not playing a large role as grunts: they're working transportation, medics, and logistics. Dangerous work, yes, and brave people, but perhaps not the best fit with young foot soldiers in Crane's book.

Finally, yes, women fought during the Civil War and played many pivotal roles (as they also did in the Revolutionary War), but--and I could be wrong here--I don't recall them being foot soldiers in a formal army, particularly for the Union.

If this was a play for adults, I'd think, hey, maybe. But I don't think mixing contemporary and traditional elements is a big deal for kids.

Just a few thoughts....

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, there were indeed female foot soldiers in the Civil War . . . who disguised themselves as males. Their experience was an extremely rare one, not a universal one. It might make for a very interesting play, but it wouldn't be "The Red Badge of Courage."

Oflur said...

Regardless of the treatment, I applaud OCT for the choice. Thank god for something other than pixies and bunnies.

Anonymous said...

Has it now become a requirement of adaptations of classic works that to be considered legit they must represent every contemporary perspective, that they tell the story from every possible angle, that they equally address every political or idealogical agenda that has evolved since the story's original composition?
Isn't it possible to accept this adaptation for what it is - Henry's story?
To dismiss it because it doesn't include a female perspective suggests that perhaps you simply wanted to see a different play.
Every play cannot tell every story.

Anonymous said...

Good for OCT for picking such a powerful play. It makes it all the more unfortunate that their upcoming season contains shows with seemingly very little substance

Anonymous said...

I think it's legitimate to question whether or not this show was a good choice given OCT's aim of generating discussion about war (stated in the program and then at the talkback).

Just because a novel is a classic doesn't mean it will adapt well to the stage and achieve that goal, especially out of historical context. Decontextualizing this story doesn't make it more relevant and in fact clouds exploration of the differences (and similarities) between then and now.

If OCT wants to start a meaningful discussion with youth about war, maybe they should move beyond questions like "Was Henry a hero or a coward?" and "Was this show antiwar or prowar?"

Anonymous said...

Interesting lesson here on how not to conduct a post show discussion.

You should always give the audience the option to participate. Do NOT hold them hostage when the lights come up and start right into something!

Announce there will be a discussion in five minutes if people would like to participate. This gives them the option to stay, leave, use restroom etc.

In this case audience was instructed almost immediately after lights came on to stand up if they agreed with...

This killed the lingering reflective mood of play and also felt annoying.

Always give the audience a choice on the discussion. Don't gang press them into participating.

Anonymous said...

For information about women soldiers in the Civil War I recommend "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War" by De Anne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.

For an ADAPTATION of Stephen Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage written about the MALE soldier's experience, I recommend OCT's production.

Jen said...

I've seen RBOC about a dozen times now, and have also participated in an OCT school tour. The talkback format is a standard one used for the school shows where they're expected to be in and out in around an hour, playing to an audience of kids sitting on gymnateria floors. In these situations, as I suspect is also the case with this in-theater production, the TEACHERS are all given study guides beforehand, and are guided through having those deeper discussions with the kids in class.

This does get a tad clunky with the public performances, but given that the majority of the shows are performed for 250 or so students, bused in for the event, I think it works well enough as a conversation starter. There certainly isn't the luxury of the "five minute break" and a lengthy debate when you've got another show starting in 45 minutes...

Anonymous said...

It's really neat how the conversation can evolve here. Looking back over the posts, I saw no one trying to "dismiss" the play for lack of a female perspective.
I did read a lot of thoughts about the perceived lines in the sand with regard to adaptations that either "Update" a classic and/or make use of a contemporary stylization in the re-telling a historically inspired story.

Casting possibilities aside, there still remain for me questions about how this production of this play tackles the subject matter.

The bias of the play seems to be (as one blogger noted already) that war is inevitable-- but you have some choices you can make while involved in war situations. The production and talkback format never seem to question this assumption.

Also, there are stereotypical gender ideas playing out in the script. One line in the play has the Voice saying "save that weakness for your mama" and then the Voice threatens to beat him if he runs. Another time the Voice says "you'll never be a man if you leave"--to me this implies more than Henry not being a mature adult if he leaves... it implies that Henry will be less than a man, i.e. a eunuch or a sissy or a woman (which in the context of the show does not seem to rank highly). There are more examples. Yet I did not notice ways the production or the talkback addresses these issues in a conscious manner.

And these ideas are being added into the multitude of sexist signals being passed down on a daily basis to children and the rest of us. I personally find this a little irresponsible. Surely we can either A). produce scripts that do not have this tacit bias or B). produce scripts that have the bias but address it in the context of the production and/or the forum of discussion.

Anonymous said...

The issues you raise can certainly be raised in a talkback section, in the program, or through a discussion sheet, but, in regard to changing the script, you're back to that line in the sand between making a script contemporary or changing a literary classic to conform to a particular social outlook. Your implication is that it's irresponsible to produce "The Red Badge of Courage" in a version that reflects the original novel. Is it irresponsible to allow students to read "The Red Badge of Courage" without the proper guidance? Really, I think we should give our young people credit with having brains and hearts, and give them a chance to draw some of their own conclusions.

Finally, though this may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but some of the examples you cite--men feeling their fear makes them weak and feminine, and that somehow not mustering courage prevents them from being less than a complete man--are still feelings contemporary male soldiers feel. Not all, but many. Which is ironic because anybody who says they aren't terrified under fire--even if exhibiting grace--is lying or nuts. They may be sexist stereotypes, but they are still reflective of some soldiers' feelings.

Anonymous said...

w/r/t to comment by anonymous 12:12

I totally agree. I think that I was unclear in my previous post. My main concern--and perhaps it's a little on the detail side of things--is that I think it's important that the topic IS addressed in some fashion. That's where the responsibility (for me) lies. Changing the script is not necessary; trying to make all person's reactions to situations identical and/or PC is not necessary... or desirable.

In fact, rather than trying to rewrite a script to make it aseptic according to some philosophy or other, I would advocate that it is more fruitful to put all the cards on playing table. What are all the issues at play here? And, as you said, that can be done with supplementary fora, paperwork, etc.; it can also be encouraged via the direction of the piece.


When the subject matter is informed by a somewhat popular cultural notion -- that can often be so popular that it is invisible in the way it affects our lives--I find it important to find ways to lay that out there, to deal with it. Especially when performing for schools.